A firm’s ability to weather a crisis may rest on its customers’ perceptions about whether or not its actions leading up to the crisis were honest and vigilant. In most crises consumers ask themselves questions like, was the firm’s action intentional? and was the company honest about it? If the public perceives evidence of purposeful dishonesty or negligence, a company’s reputation and ability to retain customer loyalty can be irreparably damaged.
A firm should carefully consider the circumstances of the crisis when it chooses a spokesperson to address those questions, says Professor Gita Johar, whose recent research has addressed aspects of crisis management and public perception. “You don’t just send anyone out to talk,” she says. “You pick different people for different reasons.”
One important factor is facial shape. “The shape and features of a person’s face can communicate a lot of information,” Johar explains. “Some research suggests that dominance can be easily inferred from a face, a perception that is very often accurate. People with faces that are perceived as dominant are dominant.”
Since the public is most concerned with a company’s trustworthiness and vigilance when a crisis occurs, the tendency to associate facial features with certain attributes, Johar thought, should apply to the firm’s public face.
Johar worked with Gerald Gorn and Yuwei Jiang of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to explore the tendency to associate facial traits with trustworthiness and vigilance. People with baby faces — big eyes, high foreheads, small chins and small noses — tend to be perceived as trustworthy. People with more mature-looking faces — smaller eyes and longer faces — tend to be seen as vigilant.
The researchers first set out to see what the limits of the baby-face effect are — how badly a can company err and still be “saved” by a baby face? Subjects were shown fictitious news articles describing mild or severe side effects caused by a drug. The articles were accompanied by different pictures of CEOs, some baby-faced and some with more mature-looking faces. When side effects were described as less severe, subjects reported believing the baby-faced CEOs more often than the mature-faced CEOs. But there are limits to the baby-face effect: when side effects were described as being more severe, subjects were less likely to trust either the baby-faced or the mature-faced CEOs’ claims of ignorance.
“Where small or ambivalent matters are at stake, or where it’s plausible that a company unknowingly committed the offense, a baby face would help,” Johar says. “But if a company releases a drug that produces harmful side effects in 20 percent of users, even if the CEO is very baby-faced, consumers are less likely to forgive the company for that transgression.”
But the researchers also found that under some circumstances consumers may possible to gloss over transgressions. “Maybe people don’t have the time to think, ‘Did the company know? Was it intentional? What’s going on here?’ In a case where the audience is not really paying close attention,” Johar says, “a spokesperson with a baby face could still carry off a serious transgression.”
To demonstrate this effect, the researchers had subjects read the same fictitious news stories, with instructions to remember a seven-digit number or a one-digit number. Subjects who had to remember the seven-digit number rated baby-faced CEOs as more honest than mature-faced CEOs, regardless of the severity of the side effects. Subjects who had the easier task of remembering the one-digit number rated baby-faced and mature-faced CEOs as equally untrustworthy when the percentage of users suffering from side effects was higher.
“The shape of the face is just one cue. If there’s a lot of information clutter, you may not see all of the cues,” Johar points out. “It may lead you to conclude a company is innocent when it isn’t.”
The distracting effect of that clutter, though, is short-lived. “There is probably some very functional evolutionary reason why we have these associations, and they are unlikely to be toppled in a short experimental session,” Johar says. “Babies need to be nurtured, they aren’t dangerous and that probably helps us believe in the stereotype that baby-faced people are honest.”
To learn if the natural association between baby faces and trustworthiness could be turned on its head, the researchers tried priming subjects to associate baby faces with intentional harm. Subjects were shown pictures of a baby-faced person and read about an intentional, harmful act (such as driving 100 mph in a 25 mph zone) he had committed. Subjects were then shown pictures of mature-faced people who committed less harmful, seemingly less intentional crimes (such as driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. Later, subjects read the same fictitious news story about a CEO who denies previous knowledge that his firm’s new drug produces side effects in 1 percent of users.
“When people were primed with inconsistent associations, attitudes were less favorable toward the company with the baby-faced CEO than with the mature-faced CEO. This suggests that you can create associations and change people’s chronic associations,” Johar says.
There are limits to capitalizing on the chronic association of baby-facedness and honesty, Johar warns: some crises may require that a firm signal vigilance more prominently than honesty. In that case, the public tends to respond better to more mature faces, whereas a baby face would be seen as too young and inexperienced.
Consumers also may want to put the insights of Johar and her coresearchers to use, not only to assess a firm’s responses to crises, but also to defend against making automatic associations in other circumstances. “Creating awareness is one way to counteract these biased effects, and people can try to correct them,” Johar says. “In a hiring situation, for example, an interviewer might want to learn about a candidate through other sources before they meet in person. The effect can’t always be controlled, but people can try to see the content before the context.”Gita Johar is the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business in the Marketing Division at Columbia Business School.